Monday, January 5, 2015

Is Bigger Better



Michigan State University(MSU) has been on a growth spurt in recent years topping 50,000 students for the first time this past fall. The growth of the student body isn’t the only sign of expansion at MSU. MSU has  been operating under the planning assumption that they will continue to grow into the foreseeable future (MSU 2020 Vision). Based on a past growth rate that added one million square feet of building space per decade, the Master Plan still assumes that growth rate into the future, and that doesn’t include expansion to off-site campuses in Grand Rapids or the recently announced Flint campus. We do live in a culture where ‘bigger’ is often construed as ‘better’.  But is this the true measure of whether a university is a ‘great’ university nurturing the public good?

 Walter Adams 1.jpg

Former MSU President and economics professor, Walter Adams wrote a highly-regarded book in the mid-80s in which he and his co-author, James Brock challenged the myth that bigger was better and more efficient.

Front Cover

 The Bigness Complex, the publisher's site (Stanford University Press) tells us

     "demonstrates how bigness undermines our economic productivity and progress, endangers our democratic freedoms, and exacerbates our economic problems and challenges."

Their concerns in the mid 80s predate our growing understanding of climate change, which should heighten those concerns about growth. The laws of physics tell us you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. 

But MSU's continued growth seems to ignore these concerns raised by Adams, Brock and now climate scientists. Expanding our built infrastructure has significant current and future costs that are being passed on to current and future generations i.e., student debt, climate change. Besides the initial huge capital outlay to add those million square feet, the costs to light, heat, cool, and maintain those spaces is considerable. While under the dominant myth of neoliberal economics we need only worry about the economic costs (especially short term ones) the conveniently ignored environmental and social costs may be many times higher.

A reasonable person might support additional space if it was to be powered with carbon neutral sources, but effectively little of it is. To continue to add additional built space that is powered by carbon based energy in light of all the warnings regarding climate change seems to reflect an air of aloofness, not simply towards the community of life we share this magical planet with, but of the second law of thermodynamics. 


If MSU truly wants to “Be Spartan Green” it might begin with a building moratorium. Continued growth on a finite planet cannot go on forever. Higher education, especially in the developed world, is not exempt from that basic physical law. This is brought to the surface most recently with the report of the new hook-up of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) with the MSU Power Plant.

 Camera Image
Bob Ellerhorst, director of utilities noted in a WKAR “Current State” interview that he anticipates that when the FRIB is running it will, by itself, use 30 percent as much electricity as the entire campus. Maybe MSU officials are not concerned about paying for those bills in hopes the Feds and/or user fees will cover the costs. But even so they should be held responsible for how that power is generated and the greenhouse gases that are released as a result.


When MSU began its push to be selected as the site for the FRIB a decade ago, this issue was raised. From all I can tell, those concerns fell on deaf ears. If someone else is paying for it, why should it be of concern to us? Because carbon emissions continue to increase and the impacts are shared with the entire human family and long into the future. MSU cannot exempt itself from its responsibility to cut carbon emissions, let alone increase them.


While the FRIB is a one of a kind research facility and will likely be used by physicists throughout the world regularly, some other recent campus additions fail that uniqueness test. Most notably the recent addition to Spartan Stadium.
 Skandalaris-Football-Center
In June 2013, the Michigan State Board of Trustees approved a $24.5 million project to the north end of Spartan Stadium that opened in August 2014. The new structure features a two-story, 50,000-square-foot addition as well as an entrance plaza, renovated gates, and additional restrooms and concessions. The building includes new locker rooms for teams, coaches and officials, including a 4,500-square-foot home locker room and a 700-square-foot home training room, in addition to a 3,600-square-foot media center and a 4,000-square-foot engagement center for all varsity sports.
... Photo Album of the North Endzone of Spartan Stadium Expansion Project

MSU plays seven home games a year. Mostly this structure will remain vacant and underused most of the year. I don’t have any figures on the amount of carbon based energy it will use during the year, but the embodied energy alone that went into its construction with excavation and the huge amounts of concrete could have been more productively utilized.
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What’s at play here I think, as Adams and Brock more eloquently and thoroughly demonstrated is the mistaken belief that bigger is better. Somehow our administrators convinced the Board of Trustees that if we just have a 4,500 square foot home locker room a player can sit in seven times a year we will be a better university. With a former coach and player on the board, perhaps this isn’t so surprising. But is this what leaders of public universities believe makes them worthy of the public trust and support, especially in a world of rising student debt and accelerating climate change?



That $24.5 million could have provided water filters for almost every family in Burkina Faso with a whole lot less carbon released into the atmosphere. Water, that thanks to the climate change these actions help accelerate, will be, as the climate models seem to predict in ever shorter supply.

The competition for biggest is killing us. Not making us or the community of life we share better. And don't even get me started on the University of Michigan's $40+ million contract for a new football coach -  a campus that boasts the BIGGEST football stadium of any U.S.college or university.

Michigan Stadium 2011.jpg It just might be time for the equivalent of a Ghostbusters approach to address unrelenting growth on our college campuses. Ooops, looks like someone beat me to the punch - checkout GrowthBusters.